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Sunday, Dec 08, 2019

People in a Kerala family have died mysteriously for 26 yrs. Now, some answers

Once grand and sprawling, the house itself lies dilapidated today, with a rusted lock holding the front doors shut, kitchen utensils strewn across the verandah, cobwebs hanging from the pillars, and tall shrubs obscuring the courtyard.

kerala Updated: Nov 11, 2019 18:16 IST
Ramesh Babu
Ramesh Babu
Hindustan Times, Thiruvananthapuram
Uma Mandiram (Koodathil), Thiruvananthapuram district, Kerala
Uma Mandiram (Koodathil), Thiruvananthapuram district, Kerala(Vivek R Nair)
         

“Once it was the most neglected house [in the neighborhood], but now everyone clicks a selfie in front of this. It has become famous,” said P Ranjith, a teenager, explaining the hordes of people coming in for a sight of Uma Mandiram since October 27 when investigations began into seven deaths that took place in the historic house between 1991 and 2017. Now in college, Ranjith said he hadn’t seen so many people in the vicinity of the house since he was a child. Most people in Karmana, a central locality in the state capital, haven’t any recent memory of the Koodathil family that lived in this traditional home for 50 years. Once grand and sprawling, the house itself lies dilapidated today, with a rusted lock holding the front doors shut, kitchen utensils strewn across the verandah, cobwebs hanging from the pillars, and tall shrubs obscuring the courtyard. The only sign of the fabled glory of Uma Mandiram and its aristocratic inhabitants are the black-and-white photographs with royals and freedom fighters that remain nailed to the crumbling walls. The house would have remained forgotten if two recent events didn’t bring public attention to the sequential deaths of the family members under circumstances that had appeared normal at first.

On October 16, Prasanna Kumari (79), a relative of the Koodathil family and a retired undersecretary with the state government, filed a complaint with the Kerala police chief Loknath Behra alleging that her late husband’s cousins, Jayaprakash Nair and Jayamadhavan Nair, died under mysterious circumstances in 2012 and 2017. She charged the family’s caretaker, Raveendran Nair, with not informing the close relatives of their deaths, fudging the will, and grabbing parts of the ancestral property. In her complaint she also sought investigations of some of the previous deaths in the family that remain shrouded in mystery. The complaint rang alarm bells for Kerala police which is still investigating the alleged high-profile serial killings of six members of a family in Kozhikode over 14 years by a woman, Jolly Joseph, who is suspected of lacing their food with potassium cyanide.

Prasanna Kumari, who filed the complaint seeking investigation into the mysterious death of 7 members of an aristocratic Nair family in Thiruvananthapuram.
Prasanna Kumari, who filed the complaint seeking investigation into the mysterious death of 7 members of an aristocratic Nair family in Thiruvananthapuram. ( Vivek R Nair )

Although investigating officers deny similarities between the two cases, what binds them is the lure of the family property and the fudging of the will granting rights to it. Looking into this case is also a special investigation team (SIT), which has so far registered cases against two family caretakers, two domestic workers, a former district collector and eight others. The police have frozen the bank accounts and sealed the properties of all accused. Fearing arrests, some of them have approached the courts for bail.

“Even before Prasanna Kumari’s complaint, I had made a formal complaint to the police on June 11, 2018,” said Anil Kumar Kalady (46), an activist and a small-time construction contractor who was the first person to call attention to the deaths. Since he was a child, Kalady said, he has been drawn towards the house, especially to the ambassador car and a vintage scooter parked on the premises.

The head of the family, Gopinathan Nair, was the son of Balakrishnan Pillai, an aristocrat close to Travancore Royal family. Balakrishnan Pillai had three children, Velupillai, Narayanan, and Gopinathan. It was Gopinathan Nair who came to inherit the family press, Jantha Press, which was at the centre of the family’s prestige and privilege. “I was close to Gopinathan Nair. His father was close to the royal family and some of the freedom fighters and had a massive inheritance,” said family friend Krishanan Nair (80). He said that besides owning property, which amounted to four acres in Karamana alone at one point, some of the family members also held high positions in the government.

Gopinathan Nair and his wife, Sumuki Amma, had three children -- Jayabalakrishnan, Jayasree and Jayaprakash. While one of them, Jayaprakash, pursued a law degree for a years before dropping out, the others never even aspired to jobs. The brothers never married and neither did their male cousins except one. The one who did was Narayankutty Nair, son of Velupillai, Gopinathan’s older brother. He married Prasanna Kumari who became the only woman to enter the family through matrimony. Kumari said that most of the Nair family’s men were alcoholic and suffered from mental illnesses. “The caretakers competed to supply drinks to them,” she said. The two generations of the family lived jointly in Uma Mandiram, which boasted rows of rooms and a phalanx of servants. Kumari said she was not able to adjust to the family’s way of life and moved to another house with her husband after just eight months after staying there.

The first person to die in Uma Mandiram was Jayashree, Gopinathan Nair’s daughter, in 1991. Twenty-year-old then, she is said to have collapsed in the house and died. It was suspected to be a suicide, but no post-mortem was held. Some of the neighbors said she had been in an affair with a young man who the family didn’t approve of. They suspected she had consumed pesticide. The next year, 1992, Gopinathan Nair’s older son, Jayabalakrishnan, also collapsed in the house without any apparent cause and died at the age of 28. In 1993, their paternal cousin Unnikrishnan Nair, son of Velupillai, died in the same house in the same manner. None of these deaths were reported to the police.

Gopinathan Nair died in 1998 and Sumuki Amma passed away ten years later. Both were in their 70s at the time of their deaths. Their relatives believe these to be the only natural deaths in the family over the decades. The parents’ deaths left their only remaining child, Jayaprakash Nair, in charge of their inherited and earned wealth. In 2012, he is said to have collapsed and died in the house at the age of 38. After his death, his cousin, Jayamadhavan, son of Narayanana Pillai,

became the heir to the family property. In 2017, he too died at the age of 60 in the absence of any known illness.

“When he collapsed Raveendran (caretaker) was present at the house. He took him to the hospital in an auto-rickshaw and never informed his relatives. Some witnesses said that some injuries were there on his forehead,” said Kumari, the main complainant. “When the details of the cyanide killings emerged, I thought it is time for me to bring up the mysterious deaths of my relatives. I finally took the call seeing that caretakers and others associated with the family were selling land grabbed after the deaths and making crores of rupees,” she said. She alleged that a web of people is behind the usurping of the family’s lands including politicians. “I have serious doubts about last two deaths. The caretaker told us that both were under treatment for mental illness. When I sought medical reports he said he has destroyed them,” she said. The SIT has found that the caretaker delayed taking Jayamadhavan Nair to the hospital after he fell unconscious.

Anil Kumar Kalady said the caretaker, Raveendran, who was in on every major family event, barred locals from entering the house after the death of the heir and even discouraged relatives from visiting. He said that realtors were seen frequenting the highly valued house after the death of Jayamadhavan and soon enough nearby pockets of land began to be sold. “Some of the local people like me turned suspicious,” he said. When some of the relatives questioned this, they were intimidated by Raveendran, Kalady alleged. Prasanna Kumari said she was threatened several times by Raveendran Nair and a retired district collector, Mohan Das, whose wife is a distant niece of Jayamadhavan Nair. Both husband and wife have been booked by the SIT.

Raveendran Nair, 58, has had a lifelong connection with Uma Mandiram. Both his parents are employed by Gopinathan Nair to work in the house. Though he has told the police he was working at the house for the past ten years, he knew everything about the family, said Kumari. He came to the house every morning and left in the evenings. Raveendran denies all charges against him. “Jayapraskah and Jayamadhavan were suffering from mental illness and their family members were scared to meet them. People who never looked after them are now vying for their property,” he said. He said he nursed the family members well and they passed on parts of the property to him willingly. He noted that the family property was worth Rs 30 crore today and not Rs 300 crore as claimed by local residents. He has said that Jayamadhavan made a new will leaving part of his inheritance to him, but the police have found the document to have been forged after his death. One of the witnesses to the new will is a domestic worker at Uma Mandiram, Leela, but she has told he police that she is illiterate and wasn’t told about the details of the will.

Denying Prasanna Kumari’s charge that he was present at the spot when Jayamadhavan died, Raveendran has told the SIT that he only saw the man lying on the floor next morning when he came in. He said he rushed Jayamadhavan to the hospital after picking him up and seeing him vomit blood.

He said the 60-year-old fell from the bed after slipping and hit his head against the wood. The hospital records say he was brought dead. The investigators say there are many holes in his claims. The histopathology report (part of the autopsy) has noted internal injuries on his head and nose and marked the one on the head as the cause of the death. The suspicion of foul play behind this and the other deaths in the family has picked up after the release of this report.

“After going through the complaint and statements of some of the accused we found some discrepancies. We have engaged a good team, but it is too early to arrive at a conclusion,” said state director general of police, Loknath Behra. The 12-member SIT is headed by DCP Mohamed Arif, and they have registered cases against 12 persons for conspiracy, cheating, forgery, issuing threats and intimidation. Other than Raveendran Nair, those accused include his relative Shyam Kumar, Uma Mandiram’s former caretaker, Sahadevan, two domestic workers, Leela and Latha, the other witness to the new will, Anil Kumarn, and distant relatives of the Nairs, Mohan Das and Maya Devi.

On Thursday night, the SIT raided the house of Raveendran Nair and seized some documents. At the time of being frozen, his bank account contained Rs 55 lakh and his wife’s, 26 lakh. His mother is also being questioned. At present the SIT is investigating two cases, the first relates to the mysterious deaths of last two members of the family and the other to the alleged fraud committed by the accused to usurp parts of the family’s property. The investigators did not rule out additional cases.